Monday, May 27, 2013

Hard Walking

My first date with Karen included a hand-in-hand walk along the icy shores of Cook Inlet at the northern margin of Anchorage, Alaska.  Clad in our down-filled parkas, a chance to photograph the waning winter sun from a nearby point provided an excuse to get better acquainted.

When I had called Karen, I envisioned a leisurely stroll as we explored each others lives and interests.  The sunset provided the framework for our rendezvous.   Wrong.  It was all I could do to keep up with this energic “filly” as she set off to prove she could keep up with me.  Pauses to take photos of living room-sized icebergs that peppered the mudflats provided the best excuses to catch my breath.  We never made it to the point, but we did satisfy the real point of the outing -- to begin to get to know one another.

That day stands in stark contrast with our afternoon at the beach this past week.  After hauling firewood (refugees from past building projects) down to the shoreline, my male ego conceded to Karen’s suggestion that we use some dry grass and twigs for kindling instead of the damp boards I was about to split.  As the first wisps of smoke rose into the clear skies, and a few calorie-laden multi-grain chips filled our bellies, Karen disappeared down the beach with her camera.  Meanwhile I honed in on a pile of rocks conveniently dumped on the shoreline by glaciers when both of our long-forgotten ancestors still lived on another continent. 

My digestive juices were already working on my hot dog and I was totally engrossed in painting that pile of rocks, when Karen reappeared.  Still in another world I was vaguely aware of her proximity as she vanquished her hot dog.  A  faint “yoo hoo” pulled me back into the present.  I turned to see a distant Karen waving and then disappear behind a pile of driftwood logs.  Sometime later, far down the crescent-shaped shoreline, I spotted something that in the distance, appeared the size of a pencil point.  Karen, perhaps, or a piece of driftwood.  A few minutes later it was gone.  Nope, not driftwood.

I was packing up my paints when my exhausted wife reappeared.  “For the first time, I feel like I’m getting old.” she said.  “That was hard walking.” 

That’s how I felt trying to keep up with Karen on our first date.

Somewhere in the distance I am painting in plein air, but you're going to need binoculars to see me.

Ochre-colored rocks brought to our Island shores by glaciers many years ago contrast with more recently delivered driftwood.

                              The shell of a recently molted Dungeness Crab.

                               The title of this one should be pretty obvious.

I'll temporarily call this plein air painting, Glacial Delivery, but that will change.  Karen and I agree it needs something more.  Maybe shorebirds, maybe a family of gnomes on a picnic and then we'll see what we want to name it.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Squirrel Wars

The ink had barely dried on our computer screen after I blogged about “Our Alaska Forest Refuge” when we heard the noise.  Scuttle scuttle scuttle above our living room ceiling.  Scratch scratch scratch.  Scuttle scuttle scuttle.  I thumped the ceiling.  Silence.  Scuttle scuttle scuttle.

Finally, a red squirrel leaped onto a branch from a corner above our living room.  Superman would have lagged behind me as I dashed outside, set up a ladder and sure enough found a hole, insulation draped on the logs below.  With the scolding squirrel outside the house, I plugged the hole.  Whew!

Dawn the next day.  Scuttle scuttle scuttle.  Drat, it’s back in.  Karen and I have shared our forest with squirrels, spent enough money for an all expenses paid cruise to the Caribbean (OK -- at 1962 prices) to feed these critters and how does it show it’s thanks?  Without even waiting to sign a lease, it moves in and tears out our insulation.  Now it might chew through a wire and burn our house down.  AAAAAK  I thumped on the ceiling some more.  Scuttle scuttle scuttle.


A borrowed live trap turned the tide in the battle.  With the intruder safely residing in the trap, Karen and I began to gloat.  Barely began!  Above us -- scuttle scuttle scuttle.  Oh no -- we’re boarding a family of squirrels.  We’ve become a bed and breakfast for rodents and we don’t have a business license.  Peeking at our captive from below we discovered what we now suspected -- well used nipples.  A female, and she’d been nursing.  There’s one thing worse that a family of squirrels living in our ceiling -- a family of dead squirrels.  We let her go.  

                                                      Hey look -- peanuts!

Checking the bilge side for sex.  Drat, the mama, we had to let her go pending more information.

I could go on and on about our stress levels, about the dust falling in our faces every time I banged on the ceiling, about our worried discussions regarding the welfare of our little boarders, about insulation and peanut shells falling into our living room, but you’d need a triple shot of espresso to finish this blog post.  We eventually recaptured mama, a young ‘un old enough to make it on his own, and one smallish male whose only fault we think was naivety as he got caught up in the drama.  Finally we caught a large bruiser, we’ll call him Bruno, and.....silence....until
the next morning.  An easy catch of one more baby and I closed off the hole and yikes,  two more entry ports.

I must have burned a tank of gas at $4.55 per gallon evicting our tenants --  free rides miles out of town.  Suspecting a strong maternal instinct, we chauffeured Mama 18 miles out the road including a bridge crossing to the far side of Blind Slough.  Each deportee was sent to extended stands of big trees where we hope they’ll successfully start new careers free from the corrupting influence of our peanuts -- on which we had only recently spent $52.00 for a bag to provide an element of cheer in their lives..

Karen’s reaction -- “they sure are cute,” then she ate a peanut.

How can anybody fail to be amused by these rodents -- until they get inside your house?.

                 OK, take notice squirrel.  This tree is yours.  Please nest in or under it.

Post Script:  As I write this there is another baby eating peanuts on our deck along with one other squirrel and Karen is out with her camera.  The good news -- no scuttle scuttle scuttle last night or this AM.  Stay tuned.  If you had asked me how many squirrels lived in our woods before this war, I would have estimated two.

The newly discovered baby.  Three holes are now plugged so here's to a fine symbiotic relationship from now on.  Some friends would say we're just dreaming.  Karen says, "they sure are cute."

Friday, May 17, 2013

Memories of Days on an Alaska Volcanic Island

I am currently showing a painting of Karen at Petersburg’s Little Norway Festival.  "Maternal Instinct" is based on a photo I took on Augustine Island, about 75 miles southwest of Homer, Alaska, over 30 decades ago.  Why not use the most exciting (to me) highlight of that trip -- our climb to the volcano’s summit -- to go along with the painting in today’s blog post?   The climb was exciting, the painting more gentle as is my beloved Karen who is often governed by her maternal instinct.

Before publishing the story and painting I asked Karen for her recollections of the climb.  Her response, “I kept a diary of the trip.”

There, to my pleasure I found Karen’s poetic farewell to Augustine -- written on the float plane, a de Havilland Beaver as the first person we had seen in 10 days piloted us back to civilization.  Her writing deserves to go with this post.

“As I sit here in Beaver flying over ocean toward Homer, away from Augustine I’m mentally saying good bye -- good bye to so many wonderful experiences.  It’s a lot like leaving a good friend behind, except I won’t get an answer if I write to Augustine.”

So -- it’s fare thee well pumice stones that float, pumice stones that don’t.

Perky eared fox who gave us so much fun and beauty.

Gentle eaglet with fluttering sleepy eyes, downy soft and vulnerable --You were so trusting -- and unknowing -- too young to even use your beak to your advantage -- too new to know your claws could hurt.  Just too DEAR for me as I think of how you’ll molt your fluff and grow feathers -- soar above the green-blue lagoons so free and un-bothered.  You sat so patiently and awkwardly  -- sprawled on your nest of sticks, grass, squid -- high where irises wave in the wind and moss hugs stone. 

And good bye to whimsical sea otters -- who delighted in what seemed to me, endless play and fun -- somersaulting head over tail in the water, over and over again -- rolling like a log -- and clapping your webbed hands together -- peering out at your moving world of salty sea, between your toes-- whiskers twitching, head held a little higher -- and then-SPLASH -- head first diving, your wet back undulating like the waves now and again -- with your tail seemingly separated because of a band of green-blue seas between your back and tail -- your black-float sleeping position made me envious -- and how like a sleeping child you looked when you’d rub your eyes with both paws -- and then look up curiously at the approaching kayak. 

So long dedicated semi-palmated plover.  Your wish to deceive us with many different acts of wing problems was commendable. What a fine mother you are!

Seals -- I didn’t get to know you very well but your sleek silvery bodies stretched out on the rocks were constantly catching my eye.  and how you’d startle us with your close following of the kayak -- SPLASH right behind by the rudder!

Good bye to mornings of rainy soft wetness -- Augustine peeping from between pillows of grayness -- mornings of bright sunlight -- Augustine clear with smoke drifting upward -- no wind -- snow fields where the life of my Levi's in seat area is now questionable.  Granny smith seeds somewhere buried in ash near the summit, stretches of beach where stones sparkle, barnacles hurt, and tide wetting my feet.

Good RIDDANCE to no-see-ums, mosquitoes, deer fly, gnats, white-sox. 

Good luck gentle bumbling mosquito hawk -- may you grow in grace.”

                        Maternal Instinct    18 x 24 inches    Alkyd on Canvas

Karen didn't mention the sparrow chick we discovered in her farewell to Augustine entry, but it, too, was part of our wilderness experience.  One caveat, though:  Feeling the foreground needed more variety, I imported the rocks in this painting from Nome, Alaska.  It's called "artistic license."

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Our Anniversary on Mussel Beach

Karen has never been much for fancy jewelry.  The only rocks she’s really cherished are those shiny ones she finds polished by waves on some wild gravel bar or beach.  It was time to celebrate our 33rd wedding anniversary with a 33 carrot surprise. 

Now you’re undoubtedly thinking I’m having a spelling farkle.  Not so.  Karen’s gift is a container filled with several wheel barrows worth of a mix of muskeg, sand and seaweed in which she can grow 33 carrots.  Her women friends will swoon at the thought of such a romantic notion.  With a bit of encouragement such as a batch of chocolate chip cookies, I might even top it off by planting the carrots for her.

We celebrated with an outing, too.  Karen’s choice -- to head for the beach to soak up some sun and look for her kind of treasures.  Eventually we settled in with Karen wandering down the shoreline with her camera focusing on still life subjects tossed up by waves.  Meanwhile, I ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she lovingly made for me and played with watercolors for the first time in several years.  The veil of success rested on Karen.

Besides her photographic treasures, Karen had to return with some trophies -- chunks of driftwood to separate her budding primroses from some overzealous man (me) with a lawn mower, a six-foot pressure-treated board to support her colorful array of flower pots on our deck and some shells -- the sea kind, not the shotgun kind. 

Her best find - a knot from a tree -- was all that remained from a former denizen of the uplands that had been riddled with ship worms.  More beautiful than a real 33 caret diamond ring, Karen wanted it so badly.  Alas, it had already been claimed by a tiny blue mussel, a 6 mm long “infant” happily nestled in it’s new found nursery, and two wee snails.  The snails could be sent to foster homes, but once a mussel stakes out it’s territory there’s no room for negotiations.  One flick of the finger and the treasure could be all Karen’s.  Back the knot went to it’s intertidal surroundings.  She would not sully the joy of our anniversary celebration.

These photographic memories are enough for Karen -- oh, and the board.

I was absorbed in my painting when suddenly I became aware of a thump, thump sound coming towards me.  The sound -- Karen's board bouncing off the rocks as she dragged the overweight specimen towards me.

                                              See, I really was painting

Do not remove -- this knot sculpted by shipworms is the property of one 6 mm blue mussel (not shown).

The tide coming in around blue mussel shells on which barnacles have established residency.

                       One lone blue mussel, the sole proprietor of  a piece of driftwood.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Impressions of an Alaskan Glacier

About 15-miles south of Petersburg, depending on how you lay your ruler on the map, a notch cuts into the North American continent.  In Scandinavia it would be called a fjord.  Here it has been graced with the less romantic name, bay.  LeConte Bay is home to LeConte Glacier, the southernmost glacier in the northern hemisphere that negotiates the perils of global warming all the way to the sea.  LeConte Glacier and the fjord that leads an ocean traveler to it are a grand package -- like a kayak paddle through the history of earth -- a package which begins the moment your boat or kayak wends it’s way through house-sized ice bergs hung up on the old terminal glacial moraine at Camp Island and enter an inlet dominated by frozen sculptures.  The further in you go, the more recently the landscape has emerged from an icy burial. 

I love to paint the setting but usually seem to end up in a pretty realistic style with a couple of variations.  Being left brained in contrast to Karen’s right brain, I struggle to paint what I do not literally see -- at least until I reach that special moment when I can dump caution into the wastebasket of how things “should look.”  Sometimes that eureka moment comes and sticks around until dessert.  Sometimes it comes only to retreat into law and order as I gradually pull my subject back into a representational style in a struggle between the two halves of my brain.  I root for the right side, but my “favorite team” doesn’t always made it to the playoffs.

I made it to the playoffs with LeConte Impressions.  I laid down the basic shapes and then started playing with individual patterns within those shapes.  Repetition with variation became my mantra.  I turned flat shapes into rounded forms using shadow and highlights.   Letting go like this magnifies the anticipation I have each time I open the door to my studio.  Some friends really like the result.  Some ask in a concerned voice, have I abandoned my old style?

                             LeConte Impressions    18 x 24 inches    Alkyd on Canvas

A few months ago I saw an opportunity to submit paintings for the Alaska State Council on the Arts Alaska Contemporary Art Bank.   I gave it a shot and viola, “Le Conte Impressions” was honored -- one of 22 works of art selected from 901 entries.  Score one for my brain’s right side.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Niko Sabotages Karen's Photo Editing Project

Karen and I have reached a crisis point.  Our computer is suggesting that if we add one more photo, it is going to crash faster than a population of Alaska mosquitoes when temperatures plummet below freezing and stay there.  The problem -- it’s owners.  

We thrive on taking photos, but chances of editing them lie close to the chances of keeping crows from devouring all the suet on our bird feeder in nineteen seconds.  OK, once in a while we actually try, but always find redeeming value in some 3 inch by 4 mm section near the top of this one, and oh look how you captured the essence of fog in that little area near the top left-hand corner of the next...on and on for over 34,000 photos.  That’s just this computer.  It has a predecessor and we have a closet totally dedicated to my massive slide collection.  This week, however, I bear good news -- we (mostly Karen) have edited this computer’s collection  down to over 31,000 images. 

By week’s end Karen lost momentum --  caught up in photos of Niko, our 14-year old, nine and a half tenths deaf and sixty six percent blind dog,  Karen is like the mother of her first-born child when it comes to pictures of Niko and her canine predecessors.  I should have hidden that file because once Karen opened it, it was all over as she got lost in memories

So, inspired by Susan Christensen’s photos of Flossy on her Flying Dog Studio website, Karen, with Susan’s urging offers these images for this post.

Dad Said the weather forecast was for rain, changing to snow and back to rain, heavy at times.

                           I really, REALLY do not want to hear about the weather.

I prefer to dream about those summer days when mom snuggles on the sofa with me -- at least when I can sit on the sofa undisturbed and, yawn, zzzzzzzzzzzzzz

      No, I don't have to go potty and I don't want to hear any more about the weather.

                                OK, as long as I get my own personal snow pile.

                                    Did I hear someone mention COOKIES?

Friday, May 3, 2013

Memories of Spring in an Arctic Alaskan Village

To many Americans April heralds the arrival of the famous showers, the first spring flowers, and cherry blossoms.  Not in Arctic Alaska.  At the dawn of the 1970s I sampled several “springs” in Point Hope -- a village at the tip of the last big promontory that faced Siberia at the northwestern corner of Alaska.  There I found an April where I wore my down-filled Eddie Bauer parka -- good to 70 degrees below zero-- every day and never once lowered the zipper because I was too warm. 

Those were the days before the Marine Mammal Protection Act, when guided hunts for polar bears were a big industry in the Arctic.  My job as an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist -- collect biological data from polar bears taken by hunters.  Guides worked in pairs out of villages like Point Hope, flying out over the polar seas in supper cubs, tiny single-engine planes fitted with skis instead of wheels and stuffed with the parka-clad pilot, a similarly clothed hunter seated behind him, some survival gear, and cans of aviation gas for refueling out on the ice.  Some called them flying coffins.  The planes would head across the frozen Chukchi Sea, often crossing the International Date Line searching for polar bears on the ever-shifting ice pack.  GPS and satellite enhanced weather forecasts did not exist.  Getting trapped by blizzards, breaking a ski when landing or breaking though thin ice were ever present dangers.

Stories of pilots scraping the ice to find grass where they landed -- whoops, this is Siberia, of Russian MIG jets screaming over hunters who had landed on Soviet ice, of an underground pipeline of illegally killed bears smuggled across the Arctic into Canada rang in my ears.  It was a heady time where I was the only person around who could enforce hunting regulations.  While the chance of confrontations was ever present, I mostly savored life in an isolated Inupiat village, a place surrounded by frozen seas on three sides and frozen tundra on the forth, completely isolated from any roads or other outposts of civilization.

Our water supply was a block of ice cut from a tundra pond and set in a pan on the oil stove, the reservoir more chunks of ice piled in our grimy arctic entryway.  Our toilet -- a bucket fitted with a seat in a tiny closet with a piece of canvas for a door.  Our transportation -- our bunny boot- clad feet.  Our only electronic communication with the outside world -- a lone community telephone.  I loved it.  My job consisted of meeting the returning guides and, if they were successful, arranging to measure the hides and skulls, determine it’s sex and take a tooth to determine the bear’s age. 

While the hunters were gone, long days gave me the freedom to explore the surrounding ice pack -- to feel  the power of shifting ice, to wonder what block of ice might be hiding the polar bear whose fresh tracks I had just crossed.  I would jump across leads extending as far as I could see in both directions knowing that, if they widened before my return, my routine would change in a negative direction.  I watched sheets of mid-calf thick ice inexorably sliding towards me, riding on top of the ice on which I stood  as one mass piled on top of the other.   As they approached, I simply stepped onto the oncoming sheet and continued on my way, stepping onto successive sheets pushed by distant winds until they piled up in giant pressure ridges on shore.

In Point Hope I first encountered life as a celebrity of sorts.  Every day after school, the village children would rush over to the shack we lived in and bang on the door.  “I could visit?” echoed through the room.  Soon several excited parka clad children would rush into our one-room unpainted house.   Bang, bang bang on the door.  “I could visit?” and the room would fill up with wide-eyed cherubs crammed into every available space until they overflowed into our tunnel-like Arctic entryway. 

Once, a young boy with a perpetual runny nose, maybe seven or eight-years old showed up without his usual knitted head band.  We queried but he didn’t know where he had lost it.  A week later it was back around his ears.  Where’d you find it?, I queried.  “Around my neck.”

One day when school was out, another boy followed me around the village as I set off exploring long-abandoned sod houses.  That’s when I paused to take his picture with a bowhead whale bone in the background, the reference photo for my recent painting, “Eli.”

                                    Eli    12 X 16 inches    Alkyd on Canvas